A guest post from Clive Gabay – who has visited with us before – on his recent experience of academic freedom.
In October 2020 I was informed that an article I had written on anti-Corbyn forces in and around the Labour Party, and the ways they relied on racializing articulations of ‘Jews’ in their professed ‘love’ for the Jewish community, had been accepted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal. There was one caveat; because of the ‘sensitivity’ of the topic, the editors just wanted to pass the article by the publisher’s legal team. This was to ensure that the editors would be financially protected if someone brought a vexatious case against the journal.
Throughout the subsequent 18 months of to-ing and fro-ing with the publisher’s legal team, the journal’s editors were incredibly supportive, and as exasperated as I became by the various turns the tale started to take. The categorisation of the article as dealing with a ‘sensitive’ topic was one that would however come to be the undoing of what had been decided by three anonymous reviewers to be a publishable article and a contribution to knowledge. I’ll return to the implications of this shortly. First, some details on what unfolded over the following 18-month period, which led to the article finally being pulled from the journal and deemed unpublishable.
In March 2021, four months after acceptance, the publisher’s legal team wrote back that the topic was indeed ‘sensitive’. The article named individuals via their publicly available statements, and the legal advice was that there was a risk that some of these people could sue. At the same time, in the legal team’s opinion, “the article as it stands is open to accusations of political score-settling against Corbyn critics and a lack of good faith”. Well indeed. While I aspire to always write in good faith, I tend to draw the line at those who make racist statements, and facilitate racist governments, and who do so in the name of a community to which I belong. This became more of an issue subsequently, when the legal team also tried to retreat from making any editorial suggestions in the name of showing fidelity to academic freedom, thus leaving the question of legality in the unqualified hands of the journal editors and myself.
At the end of March 2021 I submitted a revised version of the paper, with some protagonist’s names taken out. In early June another response was received. This time, along with concerns about the potential litigiousness of some of those named in the article (including the Daily Mail journalist Dan Hodges, and various individuals self-aligned with the Labour Against Antisemitism group), the legal advice betrayed a series of mis-readings of the article: for instance, conflating the meaning of ‘racialising’ with ‘racist’, and claiming that I opposed the self-styled centrist politics of the article’s targets. On the latter point, I did and do. But no statement to that affect appeared in the article, and even had it done, for that to matter the article would have to have been making a broader point about political centrists across the board, when in fact the article was very careful in explicitly stating that focussing on political centrists:
…does not mean that everyone who criticised the [Labour] Party over its handling of antisemitism was a centrist, that all those who identify as centrists deployed philosemitic constructs, or implicitly or explicitly instrumentalised the crisis. As the subsequent analysis will suggest however, those that feature in this article did identify as being centrists, did deploy philosemitic constructs, and did instrumentalise the crisis.
The article focussed on these figures, rather than philosemitic discourses that also popped up on the left of the Labour Party, because the former were so much more influential in shaping the subsequent political and electoral landscape. Again, this was a point I raised in the article. In my response to the legal team, I wrote that:
my opposition to the politics of these figures is beside the point. There are all sorts of people to whose politics I am opposed, but this article is about antisemitism, and to the extent that all of these figures have been shown to express philo/antisemitic ideas, I am indeed opposed to them (which I would hope is not illegal). Much more importantly, I justify the focus on them not simply because of what they have said/written, but because of their significance for the direction of British politics in the last few years…I can hardly make this argument (about the significance of these people in particular) if I have to anonymise them.
The upshot in any case was to come back to me and request further anonymisation of sources, sources that were all readily available in the public realm. But I couldn’t escape the feeling that something else was going on here. After all, if the concern was just about litigation, then why the extraneous commentary about my supposed bloodlust for centrists? And why, after explaining the distinction between racism and racialisation (which was fully endorsed by the journal’s editors), and after fully anonymising the article, did the legal advice, as we will see, keep on claiming that I was calling named people racist?
Further to-ing and fro-ing ensued, as the journal’s editors attempted to get the legal team to be specific about which elements of the article needed to be anonymised (acting on the presumption that not everyone cited in the article, like former Labour Home Secretary Charles Clarke, would sue!). In mid-August 2021 more feedback from the legal team arrived. They suggested avoiding verbatim quotes that could be put into a search engine to discover the author, and removing names. Given the guidance was still vague as to who needed to be anonymised/paraphrased, I immediately wrote back seeking clarification. It would be another two months before I received it. But this time the guidance had changed tack. Rather than raising unsubstantiated concerns about “political score-settling”, the advice now seemed to be suggesting that the publisher couldn’t offer any more advice, other than to offer a judgment on the level of risk of litigation.
If I had been under any illusions about where this was all heading previously (I hadn’t) the band-aid had now been ripped off. Risk, and its measurement, is a political judgment. And in the highly politicised context of debates around antisemitism, this positioning gave the publisher as much leeway as it wanted or needed to grind the article down by prolonging and prolonging the process of revisions until I went away, which I nearly did.
But there’s something about having written something and a group of my peers agreeing that it was worth being seen by others that made me pursue this. And so I sought further clarification. Did I also need to anonymise organisations in addition to individuals? If I anonymised the main text would I also need to remove the source material from the bibliography? Two months later in October 2021 I received a response, but this time I had been moved up the management chain, from the editorial assistant to the editorial director. The editorial director assured me that the publisher’s legal team had invested a great deal of time and resource into moving things forward, but that they were at the end of what they could do. It was up to me now. Perhaps my university could offer some advice.
In a final attempt to move things on, I sent the following message to the journal’s editors suggesting that instead of relying on direct and identifiable sources:
A different way of doing this would be to simply inform the reader that a certain argument has been made by a certain type of person (“Member of Labour Against Antisemitism”; “Former Labour Party Member”; “Journalist”, etc), remove all of the bibliographical information in the list of references, and then simply include an appendix with a list of individuals and/or Twitter accounts, with some additional identifying information (LAAS member, journalist, etc). This would allow the reader to know the sources that I am relying on, but cut the cord between the arguments/analyses in the article and any specific source. I would obviously want to include a statement at the top of the article explaining why this has been done, but perhaps that is something we can agree on some wording for?
The editors agreed that this would work, given it would result in a near-total anonymisation of the article. A further revised article was then resubmitted for legal review at the end of October 2021. In January 2022 I got a response. Finally, the legal team were raising specific points. There were four in total. One concerned a mention of racist bordering policies of the New Labour Government (referring explicitly to a foreword in a Home Office report written by Charles Clarke), but this was deemed by the legal team to be unlikely to elicit a response. This left three other points. One referred to a concern that a group I had been highly critical of, Labour Against Antisemitism (LAAS), could still litigate if they only consisted of two or three people, but as LAAS don’t publicise their members or membership levels, and all of the individuals that had been previously named in the article had been anonymised, this did not seem to be a risk, which I communicated back to the legal team. Similarly, there was a request to clarify a source for one of my claims, which was easily remedied. Lastly, the lawyers wanted clarification for why the Observer columnist Nick Cohen continued to be named in the article. Again, I provided a response and rationale for this.
Given where we had started, this seemed to suggest that perhaps I had been wrong, and that perhaps the article might see the light of day in the journal. Indeed, the final round of legal advice had concluded that, even though my article did not engage in so-called ‘dispassionate political analysis’ (I’ll add that to the language of ‘sensitivity’ to be discussed below), this would probably no longer be an issue given the level of anonymisation that was now part of the article.
A further four months went by before my next and final response, this time from the journal editor, to tell me that the publisher had refused to give them any further assurances that the article did not represent a ‘level of risk’, and that they had not provided an explicit assurance that they would provide legal costs and representation in the event of someone suing the journal. In the view of the publisher, the journal editor told me, the end of the road had been reached, and absent of a guarantee of legal cover, the editors could not risk publishing the article.
I can’t say for certain that the positions taken by the legal advice on the tone and argument of the article had any bearing on the publisher’s subsequent failure to provide guarantees of legal cover to the journal editors. It does I think create a question of why it is that centrist right-wing antisemites get defended from critique in this way (I called them philosemites in the article, but this is arguably a semantic difference, discursively). My critique of centrist philo/antisemites had been labelled as “political score-settling”, and I had been accused of mounting my analysis in bad faith. Confusing my critique of centrist philo/antisemites with alleged support for Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party (which I do not state in the article, and have a complicated relationship with), is exactly the position adopted by those who couldn’t countenance the notion that Labour’s antisemitism crisis was more complicated than a simplistic Jews don’t count analysis would hold. In my case, the Jews don’t count prerogative had seemingly extended even further. None of the subjects of my analysis were Jewish; that was the whole point of the paper. They were those who positioned themselves as adjacent to ‘The Jewish Community™’, which now seemed to make them very much count too. I don’t want to dwell too much on the politicised nature of what I wrote in the paper, as if being objective is a possible or desirable position. However, in naming my position as overtly political, the implicit judgement was that a less or non-political analysis would have been less likely to find the figures I was talking about racist. These were all figures who had, after all, come to prominence in the debates around Labour Party antisemitism for being “not racist”. Indeed, they claimed that they were the ones in fact protecting the Labour Party’s supposedly anti-racist heritage.
I don’t know for certain that the political judgements made about the paper informed the subsequent decision by the publisher to withhold a guarantee of legal cover from the journal’s editors. What is more certain is that whether this was the case or not, the precedent for academic freedom is concerning. Claims to objectivity are themselves deeply political. I can only assume that, in judging my writing to lack objectivity, the composer of that opinion held themselves to be in possession of it. Together with accusations of being overly emotional, policing the bounds of acceptability with recourse to claims of objectivity, and the claimed absence of it, is a well-worn way in which anti-racist praxis and writing has been delegitimised and silenced (unless you are David Baddiel, the author of Jews Don’t Count and one-time comic best known for his racist and misogynistic material, who has recently been given a Channel Four “part polemic, part personal documentary” to further the claims of his book).
Perhaps more concerning however is the alternative. That rather than being a case of inappropriate legal overreach, what happened to the paper is indicative of a much broader set of structural obstacles to anti-racist scholarship and commentary that have emerged in recent years, particularly around (although not exclusively) discussions of antisemitism. This relates to the social and legal difficulties with which it is possible to speak in favour of Palestinian liberation, to be anti-Zionist, to be critical of the IHRA definition of antisemitism, or as in this case, to challenge the dominant narrative of what happened in the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, or indeed even now, as the party expels tens of Jewish members. People can, have and will lose careers over this. People in far more vulnerable and precarious positions than I am. Even those who survive in whichever post they hold will carry the reputational damage of being libelled, vilified and accused of racism (by people who, let us remember, display extremely poor understandings of racism). This is why the threat to academic freedom that the treatment my paper received and represents needs to be taken so seriously. As anyone who cares to take a look will see, the final edited and anonymised version of the paper was exceedingly vanilla. If that couldn’t elicit a commitment of legal protection of academic freedom from a large publisher, then what does that say to anti-racist early-career scholars, whose hopes of building a career often rest on getting as much published as quickly as possible?
It has always felt like anti-racist scholarship has had to be twice as rigorous to be taken seriously. Now, it also has to be twice as rigorous to be deemed worthy of legal protection. The liberal and multicultural credentials of political elites, in the UK, Germany, the US and elsewhere, rely so centrally on the figure of the post-Holocaust ‘Jew’ and a normative form of ‘Jewish Community’, that anything that challenges core facets of that construction, anything that labels that construction itself as a racist fantasy, becomes immediately threatening. This is a situation that is immensely dangerous for all forms of anti-racism, as it positions normative ‘Jews’ as both uniquely vulnerable, and uniquely deserving. It splits our movements, does nothing to reduce antisemitism, and threatens both free speech and academic freedom. It provides rocket fuel to the biological essentialism that underpins resurgent white supremacism and the fascist logics of the anti-Trans movement. I don’t know what the way out of this conjuncture, long in the making, looks like. We continue to hold each other, and out of that love a future may be built.